Brave activists who broke into FBI office in ’71 remembered

Broadcast on the PBS documentary program on  “Independent Lens” last May 18 was a film by Johanna Hamilton titled “1971.”

It told the story of  a brave band of peace activists in Pennsylvania who broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, the night of Mar. 8, 1971.

The burglars “liberated” thousands of top secret FBI documents exposing the surveillance of tens of thousands of law-abiding people who were exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest the war in Vietnam, and many other injustices. Among the most dangerous projects exposed were documents that laid bare FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO spy program, aimed initially at the Communist Party, USA but expanded to target senators, representatives, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and millions of other advocates of peaceful, non-violent change.

I was the Washington correspondent of the Daily World (predecessor of the Peoples World) and received a packet in the mail of those stolen dossiers. I opened the manila envelope that day. It had no return address. I perused the documents with growing amazement. Naively, I telephoned the FBI to ask for a comment.

“Those documents are classified. You must return them immediately,” the FBI spokesman said in an officious voice. “We’re sending an agent over to your office to pick them up now.”

In a panic, I called Carl Winter, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily World. “Carl,” I said. “I have about 200 top secret FBI files here. I called the FBI for a comment and the agent told me they are sending someone over right now to pick them up. What should I do?”

“Get the hell out of there,” Carl shouted over the phone line. “And don’t forget to take the files with you.”

I grabbed up the documents and hastened out of my office and up the stairwell of the National Press Club where I hid for an hour or so. As far as I know, the FBI never sent anybody.

Finally I crept back to my office and wrote my story.

I never knew the names of the heroes who sent me that envelope until the release of “The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” by Betty Medsgar in 2014.

Like me, Medsgar, a reporter for the Washington Post, received a packet of the stolen documents in the mail back on that cold spring day in 1971. The FBI never caught the burglars despite Hoover’s assigning 200 agents to search for them.

In recent years, Medsgar convinced several to break their silence. They include Keith Forsyth, John and Judy Raines, and Bob Williamson. (you can watch the video online here.)

Like Edward Snowden who “liberated” all those digitized National Security Agency files, exposing NSA spying on law abiding people, the Media, PA burglars should be honored for their courage in defending the right of dissent protected by our Bill of Rights.

Here is a photo-image of the front page of the Daily World with the article I wrote about the Media, PA. break-in. NYU’s Tamiment Library.



Tim Wheeler
Tim Wheeler

Tim Wheeler has written over 10,000 news reports, exposés, op-eds, and commentaries in his half-century as a journalist for the Worker, Daily World, and People’s World. Tim also served as editor of the People’s Weekly World newspaper.  His book News for the 99% is a selection of his writings over the last 50 years representing a history of the nation and the world from a working-class point of view. After residing in Baltimore for many years, Tim now lives in Sequim, Wash.